By Malcolm Himschoot

I am on record as supporting and standing for public education as a cornerstone of the common good. I object to the disinvestment in present generations of children by adults. I take issue with false consumerist notions that choice means magic, or the poverty-inducing mindset that says a lottery of exceptions for some works well enough for all.

While a pastor in Colorado in 2011, I signed on to an ACLU lawsuit against the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private, religious education.

Now I’m a parent raising children in Cleveland–one of the school districts compared to New Orleans after Katrina.

[blocktext align=”left”]Real estate magazines wasted no time in driving that point home to us. “Good schools” meant “affluent zip code.” [/blocktext] When we moved to Cleveland from Colorado, everyone assumed because we had kids, we would choose to live in the suburbs outside the city, with a higher tax base. The rationale being “the schools.” Parents we met who lived in Cleveland also assumed they would move out to the suburbs as their children grew, for the same reason. To spell it out, student test scores could be easily correlated with real estate values and tax base driving per-pupil funding. There was in fact an ominous, damning, unavoidably linear match. Real estate magazines wasted no time in driving that point home to us. “Good schools” meant “affluent zip code.”

Everybody knows this. Everybody knows this! Except when it comes time to invest in education by paying taxes. Then somebody makes up some story about fiscal efficiency, and helps the public temporarily forget this salient principle that keeps corporations re-investing profits toward product improvement. Don’t forget this one: “You get what you pay for.”

But we didn’t relocate to the wider area. We relocated to Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood. We found a reform movement underway, beginning to drive reinvestment to the areas that most need it, offering transparent rankings of public schools within the district for parents to both choose and then get involved in their children’s school to make it better, and responding to the desire to generate excellent new schools.

How does Cleveland do public school reform? In part, by granting public charters to non-profit groups whose model breaks the linear correlation, who locate in neighborhoods of highest promise and highest impact (read “high need”), who despite that fact attract enough resources and dedicate enough energy that they end up showing student test scores comparable to the richest suburb.

In my choice as a parent, I may have been driven by those kinds of results. After all, many parents would love to be able to choose to send their kids to a good school, regardless of where they live. But it gets weirder. In our case, Louisa May Alcott Elementary, the one elementary school near our house (the one whose enrollments they police the first few months of the year, asking “Do you live north of the tracks or south of the tracks?”) was actually rated Excellent. So I had my choice of two good schools – and I still opted against the neighborhood school.

Or did I?

By fostering choices like the ones I had, by giving such choices to wage-earning parents like me, Cleveland may reverse the long-term erosion of tax dollars for public schools, simply by attracting or retaining urban dwellers with resources. Instead of boarded-up houses and fewer residents every year, Cleveland could see home improvements and population growth. If people who make more than $38,000 (the average yearly income in the city) raise the city’s overall average income, this will raise the tax base and actually manage to be good for funding the urban school district. And relationally, if neighbors do find each other on the same block, who come from different income brackets, that could actually manage to be good for the next generation of students.

[blocktext align=”left”]Schools never exist in an equal-comparison vacuum, the way public debate portrays it. A multigenerational cycle of student failure is never – but never – about what one teacher did or didn’t do. Schools are part of communities[/blocktext]Schools never exist in an equal-comparison vacuum, the way public debate portrays it. A multigenerational cycle of student failure is never – but never – about what one teacher did or didn’t do. Schools are part of communities. Where communities show the most stress and blight, where families pay the highest rate of taxes while languishing in the lowest-wage jobs, where work itself doesn’t even pay as much as criminal enterprise, where low-level crime is punished with such severity that children grow up with suspicion instead of trust in violent rules, where race is written city block by city block, where white people once exited to create suburbs the moment government and industry gave them the choice to own homes and accumulate wealth, where the chasm opens between achievement and oppression – that is where the problem of “the schools” lives. And this is where the solution lives as well.

My family is a white family. North of the tracks-privileged in Cleveland. So we could choose between a good neighborhood school and a brand-new charter school. Either one would benefit our kids. Public school was the right symbolic choice. Did I mention, I’m on record? But then again …

In the short-term, an open spot come summertime at Louisa May Alcott could go to someone else’s kid from one block away. And long-term, a charter school like Near West Intergenerational School in Ohio City, if it’s still around in a decade, will have retained some middle-income home-owners and thus supplied a significant amount of tax revenue to the city of Cleveland. By my calculation, way more than a bake sale.

So what did I do, but go and enroll my kids in charter school.

I participated in the dilemma of portable funding, which allows individual student registration to divert money from struggling schools. I joined a movement which has no accountability to kids with special needs, to the overall demographic of low-income and multi-ethnic families, or to teachers who organize for the health of their profession – a movement which has plenty of privileged routes besides the standard route to funding, based on high-powered middle-class fundraising. I joined a group on whom voluntarily rests the prospect of a diverse school. The founders knew their outlying test scores could attract families of color; that year, they came recruiting white families.

I write this wishing it could be a purification exercise, a sort of a confession. But it can’t. I’m implicated. As much as I try to propel a solution for my urban area, I am aware that the broader ideological discourse across the country will take any success shown by charter schools and use it to break public education elsewhere – like the voucher component I opposed in Douglas County, the whitest and wealthiest and most educationally-satisfied county in Colorado. This is a problem.

At least if I write this, implicating myself, I can also foster dialogue to call out others equally implicated. Given an issue as persistent as educational disparity, all the effort and all the blame cannot be put solely upon parents, but must be shared across a multi-generational society.

I write to draw attention to the ethical paradox I participate in, because by sustaining the conversation where it has the most heat, a broader audience will be engaged in the critical issues as well.

Charter schooling is controversial, and it should be.

Malcolm Himschoot is a minister and staffer in the national office of the United Church of Christ.